Independent wins battle for Austrian presidency

Former Greens chief Alexander van der Bellen (top) faced off against far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer (above).
Former Greens chief Alexander van der Bellen (above) faced off against far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG
Former Greens chief Alexander van der Bellen (top) faced off against far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer (above).
Former Greens chief Alexander van der Bellen faced off against far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer (above).PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

Winner Alexander van der Bellen had just 31,026 edge in votes over Norbert Hofer

VIENNA • Independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen has narrowly won Austria's presidential election, defeating far right-wing Freedom Party (FPOe) candidate Norbert Hofer.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said yesterday during an official announcement in Vienna that Mr Van der Bellen beat Mr Hofer 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent - "a difference of 31,026 votes".

Mr Hofer, 45, conceded defeat to Mr Van der Bellen, 72, a former Green Party chief, on his Facebook page ahead of the announcement.

"Of course I am sad today. I would have liked to take care of our wonderful country for you as president," he wrote.

The contest between Mr Hofer and Mr Van der Bellen in Sunday's election had been too close to call and depended on postal ballots being counted yesterday.

Mr Hofer's 3.8 percentage point lead in Sunday's preliminary vote count amounted to only 144,006 votes, so the result of the postal vote count due yesterday evening was crucial.

Austria is a relatively prosperous country with low unemployment, but it has been at the centre of a record influx of refugees from the Middle East, and resentment towards the two centrist parties that have dominated politics since the end of World War II has grown.

During his campaign, the anti-immigration Hofer was presented as the friendly face of the far right-wing FPOe, which has its roots in Austria's Nazi past, a history the country has not confronted as openly as Germany.

Mr Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor, campaigned on a pro-EU platform.

"I am happy that we have finally rid ourselves of the cliches attached to the party," supporter Henriette Hakl said at the FPOe's post-election party on Sunday evening.

"I get offended when someone says I am from the extreme right. I am a post-war child. I love life, but I want order in my country."

In the first round of voting on April 24, candidates from the Social Democrats (SPOe) and its centre-right coalition partner People's Party (OeVP) finished a disastrous fourth and fifth with just 11 per cent of the vote.

Their failure means that for the first time since 1945, the two parties had to watch the second round from the sidelines. This was the final straw for Mr Werner Faymann of the SPOe, who quit as Austria's chancellor on May 9.

Few observers thought that the professorial and somewhat dishevelled Mr Van der Bellen could beat his polished younger rival after lagging 14 points behind him in the first round.

"But in the last 14 days, there has been such a momentum among voters - musicians, actors, workers, totally different people across all generations, professions and all sections of society," Mr Van der Bellen said late on Sunday.

The FPOe has shaken up Austrian politics and sent shock waves through Europe before.

In 2000, under then leader Jorg Haider - who memorably praised Hitler's employment policies - it entered into a coalition with the OeVP. The result was international isolation and Austria temporarily becoming a pariah in Europe.

Since the end of World War II, the Austrian head of state has performed a largely ceremonial role.

But the new Austrian president could potentially shake things up by using hitherto untapped powers to dissolve Parliament or fire the government.

"You will be amazed what a president is capable of," Mr Hofer said during the campaign.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Independent wins battle for Austrian presidency'. Print Edition | Subscribe